The Story We Needed Ken Burns to Tell

By Cecilia Alvear
The Washington Post
September 22, 2007

There’s an application on my computer called the “Ken Burns effect.” It can dress up my picture slideshows by inserting pans and zooms, adding a feeling of motion to the still images. It mimics the technique filmmaker Ken Burns uses to hold the attention of viewers in his epic documentaries, which rely heavily on historic paintings and photos.

As a Latina, I’ve unfortunately run across another kind of Ken Burns effect, one that leaves Hispanics largely invisible in those documentaries.

For “The War,” his 14 1/2 -hour PBS series that begins tomorrow, Burns concentrated on how World War II affected the lives of people from Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn.

I recently attended a screening of highlights of “The War.” I found it stunning, moving and sadly incomplete. Deftly cutting between the battle lines and the home front, Burns shows the cruelty of war in intimate detail. We see hundreds of bodies floating in the ocean during the Pacific campaign. We see the injustice of a black soldier from Mobile serving his country in a segregated Army. We see law-abiding Japanese Americans herded off to internment camps.

During a segment on the liberation of Nazi death camps, a Jewish American veteran bitterly describes the atrocities he saw there. A woman in the row behind me began sobbing audibly as the film illustrated the veteran’s words with shots of emaciated survivors.

Yet nowhere in the powerful original production did Burns include the stories of Latinos affected by the war. As many as half a million Hispanics served in World War II and earned at least 13 Medals of Honor. They returned to a country where they, like blacks, were treated as second-class citizens.

Some critics of Burns have previously noticed the way he ignores Latinos, pointing out that in his 19-hour documentary saga “Jazz,” Latinos rated only 3 1/2 minutes of airtime and that many of the greats of Latin jazz, who played alongside whites and African Americans, were overlooked.

In his 23-hour production “Baseball,” Burns devoted only six minutes to Latinos, who now play a dominant role in the sport. Six minutes, so help me A-Rod.

It’s odd behavior for a filmmaker so adept at chronicling the black experience in this country. “Race is at the center of all of American history,” Burns has said. Yes, it is. But there is more to the story than just black and white.

In a question-and-answer session after the screening I attended, Burns said that one reason Hispanics were overlooked in “The War” was that “no one came forward” from the Latino community when he and his team solicited stories. So why didn’t they exercise a bit of journalistic due diligence and reach out to people? He also said it was impossible to tell the stories of every minority group involved. True, but in this case, a significant element had been omitted.

Because Sacramento was one of the places profiled, I phoned a Latino veterans group in that area of California. Within an hour I had the names of four men, still living, who had served honorably in World War II and had interesting stories about their experiences.

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has overseen an extensive project to collect the oral histories of Latino veterans of World War II. No one from Burns’s team contacted her during production of “The War.” Rivas-Rodriguez is a member of Defend the Honor, a group that pressured PBS and Burns to amend his documentary.

Despite strong initial resistance, Burns and PBS relented. “The War” now includes the stories of two Latinos and a Native American who fought in World War II. There are 28 minutes’ worth of new interviews and pictures. It’s unclear, though, whether these additional segments will be included in the companion books, DVDs and educational materials that are part of the project.

Burns said at the screening I attended that some Latinos were reacting as if “The War” would be the definitive account of World War II. Others could produce documentaries on this subject, he noted. I doubt, however, that PBS or any commercial network would be willing to spend millions of dollars on another World War II project anytime soon. And no other filmmaker would receive the attention or editorial freedom Burns gets.

In discussing the criticism, Burns told the Los Angeles Times this month that he noticed that Hispanic groups hadn’t pressured Latino filmmakers to tell the stories he omitted. “No, no, no — it has to be Ken Burns,” he said. “In a way all of this was an extraordinary compliment.” Yes, it was. Latinos recognize that Burns is the country’s preeminent documentary filmmaker. We want him to recognize us and our contributions to America.

Cecilia Alvear, an independent television producer, is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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